Haggerty: It's becoming clear B's still paying Cup price

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Haggerty: It's becoming clear B's still paying Cup price

PITTSBURGH The price for winning a Stanley Cup isnt just limited to that particular NHL season.

Sure, the Bruins dropped their blood, sweat and tears into the 2010-11 bucket and managed to come away hoisting the Cup triumphantly over their head in June.

But the Bruins are paying the piper this season, and those payments just keep on coming. The Bs started the year with a 3-7 record in their first 10 games that everybody attributed as a quick Stanley Cup hangover after they dominated during the months of November and December.

But it appears the Bruins have been the midst of another Cup hangover since January, and this one hasnt been nearly as merciful as that short 10-game burst at the seasons outset. If October was the immediate nausea and violent illness following an all-night bender, then the Bruins are now fighting through a foggy-headed hangover funk thats been lingering since January.

The Bs are 12-14-2 in their last 28 games after dropping a 5-2 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins that would have registered as a technical knockout if it was scored as a boxing match.

But not because the Bruins were outclassed or out-hustled. Its because the rolling Penguins landed so many devastating blows against a reeling Black and Gold hockey club used to doling out the big bad punishment.

With the situation that we had with a short bench down to three lines and five defensemen, I think our guys battled hard, said Claude Julien. With the way we played this afternoon Im not going to criticize my team. We showed a lot of guts with keeping the pace when we were down by three goals.

We had a great second period and got a couple goals back, but not enough in the end to get over the hump. There were some goals that werent very good in the first period that we wish we could have back.

It was Adam McQuaid that skated away crumpled up in pain just four shifts into the game after going toe-to-toe with James Neal in the corner. On the very same shift Neal knocked Zdeno Chara out of the middle of the net after the McQuaid crash while screening Tim Thomas for a Matti Niskanen power play goal.

It was indicative of the emotion and energy the Penguins were whipping out while winning their ninth straight game.

Meanwhile the Bruins continue to pay for their healthy run through last years playoffs with a barrage of injuries. The Black and Gold could have as many six starters missing from their Opening Night lineup due to injury when they travel to play the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.

The Bruins got one healthy body back with Andrew Ference returning to the lineup after missing five games, but they also lost three more to injury with McQuaid, Max Sauve and Patrice Bergeron all going down during the game. Boston can survive without McQuaid and Sauve, but any serious injury to No. 37 would be crushing blow to a team already absorbing body shots from all directions this season.

Its very unfortunate when the bench is short, but you have to play without guys. Thats when you have to play smart with short shifts and keep up the tempo of the game, said Chara. I thought we did that as the game was going on. Its tough when youre behind early in the game and youre trying to catch up.

It seems as if the Bruins have been catching up for large portions of this season rather than being the one chased.

Perhaps there is no greater poster boy for the Bruins paying the Stanley Cup price than Tim Thomas.

The 37-year-old Bruins goaltender is 9-8 with a .899 save percentage and 2.83 goals against average since skipping the President Obama visit at the White House, and the political punch lines and Obama barbs keep coming his way as hes struggled since that fateful decision.

Most around the Bruins doubt it has anything to do with political stances or Facebook posts, however.

Its got much more to do with a goalie turning 38 years old before the playoffs that also played 82 games last season en route to the Stanley Cup.

This season Thomas was dominant when the team enjoyed a home-heavy portion of the schedule during the first half, but hes crashed and burned as the Bs second-half schedule has grown dense with a high volume of games and extended road trips.

The Tuukka Rask injury was the crushing blow to Bostons goaltending strategy, and only now will Thomas get some rest in mid-March after hes already worn down his batteries with nine straight appearances. Thomas fatigue was punctuated with a weak five-hole goal allowed to James Neal at the end of the first period that featured little of Thomas famous pluck and battle.

Its not an indictment of Bostons toughness, will or desire to win because theyve already proven themselves Cup-worthy in all those areas.

But there is only so much possible gas in the tank when a hockey club has been given only 11 weeks of rest and recovery sandwiched between 165 NHL hockey games and counting.

It may be that the mind and heart are willing for the Black and Gold this time around, but the body is not. It happens to the best of us.

Witness Bergeron taking a Matt Niskanen shot off his left leg during a second period penalty kill in Sundays loss. It was clear the blocked shot hurt Bostons invaluable center and Bergeron immediately retreated to the runway to walk off the searing pain.

Bergeron returned to the bench and attempted to play, but the pain was again far too great.

Bergeron tried again at the start of the third period and even jumped out for one very gingerly-moving shift before heading back to the bench. The center bowed his head in obvious pain, and both Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin patted Bergerons shoulder and head in support of their respected leader trying to gut it out.

But that was it for Bostons spiritual leader as he limped back to the dressing room with each member of his team tapping his shoulder on the way by them. Bergerons night was done and so was Bostons effectively as a visibly gassed Chara and Milan Lucic attempted to rally the Bs in the third period to little avail.

The spirit of Bostons players is more than willing, but the bodies are simply breaking down.

Theres really only two ways to look at injuries. You can start feeling sorry for yourself as a group or you can do something about it," said Marty Turco. "Guys step up when they get more minutes and the leaders and best players take the reins and have everybody follow suit. Often you just have to play a better team game. I dont think this team is where it can be.

Its a tough league and every night is brutal unless you can be thinking and be confident. Thats no different. But what is different is that this team can be a great team when they play as a tight group. I know they feel invincible when that happens, so hopefully well see that again soon.

There has been way too much fatigue and injury chatter surrounding a hockey club that bullies opponents with brute strength and impressive depth when all is going right. Now a long hockey season has sapped their mighty strength and taken a heaping chunk out of their overwhelming depth.

The strength may return next month when the playoffs start, but does anybody truly believe the Bruins depth of last season will be in fine working order during the postseason.

Does anybody truly think Nathan Horton is going to be a Game 7 hero again during this seasons playoffs when he hasnt been seen on the ice since suffering a concussion back on Jan. 22?

Is anybody really banking on Rich Peverley attacking opponents with tenacious speed like hes in mid-season form when he hasnt even started skating nearly a month after suffering a sprained knee against the Montreal Canadiens?

There are so many questions and uncertainties surrounding the Bruins this season. Many of those questions can be traced back to the heavy ransom paid last spring when Boston joyously raised the Cup.

Its a price anybody around the Bruins organization would gladly pay again, but its one that might curtail any hopes of a long playoff run this spring.

Theres a reason no NHL team has won consecutive Stanley Cup since the Detroit Red Wings 13 years ago, and the Bruins are becoming all too familiar with the reality of it all this season.

Morning Skate: Old friend Warsofsky called up by Penguins

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Morning Skate: Old friend Warsofsky called up by Penguins

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while waiting for the next wave of announcements that the Bruins have signed college players out of the NCAA tournament.
 
-- Former Wild goaltender Josh Harding is finding his way after his MS diagnosis forced him out of the NHL prematurely.

-- Young D-man Seth Jones is becoming the “hoss” defenseman that the Blue Jackets will need come playoff time.

-- PHT writer Cam Tucker has Wild coach Bruce Boudreau calling a loss to the Canucks “embarrassing” as the hard times continue for Minnesota.  

-- Backup goalie Curtis McElhinney is ready to step up for the Leafs after they lost Frederik Andersen to injury.
 
-- Old friend David Warsofsky has been recalled from the AHL and will be with the Penguins as crunch time hits ahead of the playoffs.

-- USA Hockey is now reportedly reaching out to rec league and former Division III women’s hockey players to find a replacement roster for the world championships as the USA women continues their boycott.
 
-- For something completely different: We have an honest-to-goodness think piece about pulling the “Irish Exit.” Well, okay then.

Haggerty: Time for Bruins to make a change in goal

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Haggerty: Time for Bruins to make a change in goal

BROOKLYN -- For the second year in a row, Boston's franchise goaltender and $7 million man Tuukka Rask couldn’t physically answer the bell for one of the biggest games of the year.

Rask was unable to go Saturday night when the Bruins faced the Islanders at the Barclays Center because of a lower body injury. Anton Khudobin stepped in and helped the B's to a 2-1 victory that snapped their four-game losing streak, moved them past the Isles back in the second wild-card spot, and enabled them to close to two points behind Toronto for third place in the Atlantic Division.

It wasn't quite the same as last year, when Rask was too sick to play the win-or-go-home regular-season finale against Ottawa. The Bruins got shellacked in that one and missed the playoffs. There are still two weeks left in the regular season, so Saturday didn't have the same do-or-die consequences.

But Khudobin, who made 18 saves, gave Boston some energy and enthusiasm in the crease with the same kind of battling, chaotic style that Tim Thomas exhibited. Watching Khudobin throw a double-pad stack at John Tavares on a late third-period Islanders power play in a one-goal game was a clear sign that Rask wasn’t in net, and his unconventional technique perhaps distracted Tavares enough that he ripped his open shot off the crossbar and away from harm.

Afterward interim coach Bruce Cassidy fervently sang Khudobin’s praises, and almost seemed to be shedding some light on what they aren’t always getting from their top goaltender in these crunch-time games.

“That’s the type of win that goes a long way in the room when your goaltender is battling hard, and fighting that hard to see pucks and your D are blocking shots," he said. "And you kill that many penalties. (The Islanders failed to score on six power plays.) It was a nice building-block win for us.

"I loved [Khudobin’s] performance. He’s a battler. He got swimming a couple of times, but that’s Dobby. He keeps it interesting for you. He’s a battler and he always has been. That’s what we needed tonight.”

So now the Bruins have a choice about what to do Tuesday against the Predators. And the hope here is that Khudobin gets a second straight start, whether or not Rask is healthy enough to go.

Khudobin has won five games in a row and has a 1.98 goals-against average and a  .920 save percentage since the All-Star break. Rask, in contrast, has an inflated 2.91 GAA and .892 save percentage in that span.

More than that, however, there’s a real issue developing with Rask and how much trust the Bruins can have in him when the games matter most. He gave up a couple of bad goals in the loss to the Lightning on Thursday night, and afterwards looked like the boy who lost his dog when answering questions with a soft, unsure voice that began to trail off when it came time to accept responsibility for his part in the ugly defeat.

The downcast expression was a concern, and it certainly seemed like Rask was rattled mentally as much as he was beaten physically after that defeat.

So the overriding question now is: What good is a No. 1 goaltender if he doesn’t play like one when it matters most?

Maybe Rask is seriously injured and we’ll find out after the season that he needs hip surgery, and was far less than 100 percent all year. Or maybe playing three games in four nights was too much of a strain, and he needed the weekend away from the ice after the unavoidable bump in workload.

The fact that the Bruins expect Rask to practice on Monday, however, really takes some of the oomph out of the serious-injury argument, and makes one wonder how he can practice Monday after not playing in the biggest game of the season on Saturday.

Maybe Rask was angered by Cassidy calling him out by saying the team “needs more from him” after the goalie's lackadaisical performance in the loss to Tampa Bay, and that played into the goalie’s sudden case of “lower body discomfort” on Friday after saying Thursday he felt fine physically.

Maybe Rask is frazzled emotionally after the burden of carrying the team at times this season, and he needed a few days away from the ice to recollect himself and get ready for the crucial seven remaining games on the schedule.

Still, the Bruins can’t look at Rask as someone they can rely on when the chips are down for the rest of this season. That cost them last year, and shame on the Bruins if they again make the mistake of putting all of their playoff eggs in the Rask basket.

Perhaps it’s time to even start thinking about other goaltending options this summer. Rask will no longer have full no-trade protection once the season is over. He's been inconsistent at best in the biggest moments over the years, and the B’s shouldn’t pay a goaltender like he’s one the best if he isn’t when the late-season heat is on.

But that’s a question to ponder in a month or two.

For now, the Bruins should ride the hot goalie -- Khudobin, who showed Saturday he's willing to battle his butt off -- and let Cool Hand Tuukka cool his heels on the bench while recuperating from whatever it is that kept him out of a gigantically important game in Brooklyn this weekend.